WATERFORD (Apr 12, 2008) – The Hamilton Spectator -- A historic church with a storied past faces an uncertain future after a $1.5-million fire tore through the sanctuary and sent flames belching out of the bell tower.

Waterford United Church officials, who were assessing the damage yesterday, will have to decide if they can restore the 152-year-old church to its former state or tear it down and start all over. The town is about one hour southwest of Hamilton.

Hundreds of residents came out to watch the historic church burn Thursday night. Many of their families have belonged to the church for generations. As they watched, the original birth, death, baptismal and marriage records of some of their own families might have been going up in flames.

It's too early to know if the church can be saved. But the prospect of writing off one of their oldest buildings doesn't sit well with folks in a village that cherishes its past and lives in a kind of time warp.

Fire officials said the blaze started at about 6 p.m. in the back addition of the main brick structure where roofers were packing up for the day after repairing that section's flat roof with hot tar. The workers made a vain attempt to douse the flames using fire extinguishers after a resident noticed smoke rising from the roof.

It took about 50 volunteers from area fire departments most of the night to beat down the flames, which quickly spread through the main body of the church and up the steeple. By morning, one side of the roof had collapsed, the south wall had burned through in some spots and the steeple was badly charred.

"The fire is determined as accidental, however preventable. No further action will be taken," said Ken Sheridan, media relations officer for Norfolk County Fire and Rescue.

Brian Holden, a church trustee, said a structural engineer will be going through the church in the next few days and will determine the structure is safe and sound enough for restoration. If it isn't, the only option will be to build a new church from scratch. He said the church carries $3 million in insurance.

He estimated the structural, smoke and water damage at about $1.5 million. But the real cost to the congregation, which numbers about 460, will only be known after church officials can determine the fate of artifacts, records and other items that may have perished in the flames.

Reverend Jeff Smith, who has been pastor at the church for four years, estimated he personally lost about $40,000 to $60,000 worth of personal effects in his office. They included thousands of dollars worth of rare religious books, his robes from when he was ordained a minister and a silver communion service.

He's also concerned about the fate of original records, as well as artifacts such as stained glass windows, the antique pews, the pipe organ and four pianos.

Parishioner Robert Stevenson felt a bit like a parent watching his children trapped in a burning house when he arrived at the church shortly after the fire started. Firefighters had to dissuade him from going inside and trying to rescue some archival material he feared would be destroyed in the blaze.

Stevenson taught history at Waterford High School for 30 years before retiring in 1996. He still gives walking tours of the village which has dozens of pre-Victorian mansions and three historic churches in the centre of town.

A few years ago, Stevenson and fellow history buff, Dianne Bakker, oversaw the publication of a 400-page history of the church.

Their work tome traces the congregation back to 1818 when itinerant ministers known as saddlebag preachers rode into town to hold Sunday services.

It also describes the building of the church as a clapboard structure in 1855, the bricking of the exterior in 1889 and the addition of the back wing and auditorium in 1960. If at all possible, Stevenson said he'd like to keep the building in its original state.

"I'd hate to see a modern building that doesn't fit the character of the street," he said.